The Tories’ hammering in the local elections is more to do with voter disdain for the government than any enthusiasm for Labour. Starmer must produce a vision to inspire the country if he wants to be the next prime minister.

(Photo by Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Local election results across England have largely come in, and with them, the inevitable spin, gloss, and damage control has begun. Early indications show a low turnout, Conservative voters staying at home, and a general lack of enthusiasm and engagement across the board.

As a local Labour candidate for the Crewe South ward of Cheshire East, I am over the moon that the electorate has put their trust in me once again. The count is completed, and the ward has remained comfortably red—Labour has even made historic gains in some of Crewe and Nantwich’s leafier, more affluent wards.

However, without wanting to be the spoilsport, there are some warnings for Labour if we look past the endless spin to what the voters are saying to us. The flip side of these results is the low turnout, voter apathy and indications that the introduction of voter ID requirements at polling stations has impacted some of the more traditionally working-class areas.

Horror stories of voters being turned away over ID issues—the first reversal of electoral rights in this country since the Great Reform Act of 1832—should be the main headline, with people having their rights snatched away from them for no reason but gerrymandering and voter suppression.

For Labour in particular, it will be interesting to hear the analysis of the northern ‘heartlands’. Early good news is that my neighbouring council of Stoke on Trent has returned to Labour. Reports have been coming in all day that the Conservatives have lost many seats across England. It is, without doubt, a terrible result for the Tories.

The Labour leadership must not just look at the good news stories; they should take heed of the warnings and show that we are listening. I personally don’t think that there is an upsurge of enthusiasm for any political offer, and it remains imperative in my mind that the Labour Party comes up with an economic strategy to cement our working-class base. Otherwise, we remain vulnerable to the culture war and opportunities for Tory populists to manipulate voters through endless ‘anti woke’ distractions.

We must have a radical economic offer that unites socially diverse parts of the country. The current cost of living crisis is just the latest catastrophe. Knocking on doors these last few months, it is clear that the pain has never been more acute. Money worries and mental health problems are escalating, and the stress and strain are etched on the faces of ordinary citizens.

Labour must paint a vision of hope for the future and has to deliver. Failure to do so when the desperation is so great would be unforgivable—and will not be forgiven. The millions of working-class votes we lost in the Blair years still come back to haunt us.

We need clear, bold and easily communicable solutions to the cost of food, energy and other skyrocketing prices, not lawyerly obfuscation. As we see from shockingly low turnouts, offering minor modifications to the status quo will not get people to the polling stations.

To really win again—to win for a reason, and to build back trust with the electorate by fulfilling our purpose as a progressive political force for change—we need to rebuild that alliance of working and middle-class voters and stop assuming that those who have voted for us in the past are ‘in the bag’.

There is a route to a parliamentary majority and Downing Street, but it requires a vision of a better and more just future. Meanwhile, the electoral barriers being erected suggest the need for a vigorous nationwide campaign to sign up postal voters in working-class areas with a general election looming.

After a decade of pay squeeze, headline inflation in double digits, and the basics becoming increasingly unaffordable for many, workers desperately needs a pay rise. The loss of public wealth through austerity and privatisation needs to be changed. That means structural economic change that will change outcomes. It is naïve to place faith in ‘growth’, which is simply the new trickle-down economics.

Nor do we have to wait for the keys to Downing Street. This was a decidedly odd local election campaign, with Labour nationally mostly talking about Westminster issues and ignoring all the things that can be done at the local government level—and are being done by a handful of innovating Labour councils.

We should be showing people that we mean business and are serious about change by rebuilding our local economies and redirecting wealth back into the community, placing control and the benefits into the hands of local people.

Labour councils must use this opportunity to look at employment support and procurement, with a broader agenda of insourcing and investment in the local economy, with trade unions and workers central to the policy development.

The Tories have no solutions. They are wedded to a failed economic system that will only ever work against the majority. That is why they have picked up the culture war strategy. Combined with voter suppression and dangerously regressive legislation, they are flirting with post-democracy and an ongoing war on the people of Britain should they try to do something about it.

It would be incautious to dismiss their chances. Look below the hype, and there are serious warning signs. Here in Crewe, the Tories have taken St. Barnabas, one of our poorest wards, from Labour through a concerted effort to sign up former UKIP voters for postal votes—and there are likely a plethora of other such tricks up their sleeve.

Communities that reliably have voted Labour for generations cannot be expected to keep doing so without a real offer that would impact their lives. The parsimony and minimalism of the past few years is a dangerous strategy and one that could prove fatal if the Labour Party doesn’t change its strategy and build enthusiasm and earn votes rather than manage decline and expect to win by default.

Some have suggested that what we are seeing is voter fatigue, but from my conversations on the doorstep, it isn’t that. Instead, it’s a chronic lack of hope for the future.

The lack of voter participation is partly a message of dissatisfaction with the government, a decision to stay at home by some Tories. But there is an apathy towards Labour, too, that leaves us vulnerable to further seismic shifts in the economy or politics.

Turnouts as low as 15 per cent are a real problem for democracy. As the Labour Party, we have to offer something more, or our real difficulties will lie ahead in the shape of what fills the void. Now more than ever, we need to build a future vision and take it to the country. Councillors need to work harder than ever to prove that they are indeed different from the Tory alternative. The strategy should not be managing the government’s budget cuts and accepting the attacks on jobs, pay and conditions, but a joined-up political strategy with democratising the local economy at its heart. Tinkering won’t cut it; now is the time to transform, one ward at a time.

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